Wednesday 25 March 2015

F.T.I.H: A Dream or A Nightmare -Update: “It’s an Invitation”

After Mass last Sunday I had an opportunity to have my questions answered about F.T.I.H (Forward Together In Hope), our Diocesan project to re-invigorate the Diocese. I wanted to know ‘What is being done in the project to promote vocations?’ ‘Are we seeking to establish lay-led parishes?’ I cannot recall a response to the vocations question, but I was happy to hear that what we are doing is inviting folk to [i] become active disciples; [ii] to be open to being missionary parishes; [iii] to offer more varied experiences of worship, and [iv] to energize the youth. These are sound aims –who could not support them? Those I have spoken to who have misgivings about FTIH due to its lack of a vocation drive are behind FTIH in these aims.

[i] The call for an active laity is sound, even essential, and the scope is wide: Music provision, Sick and Housebound Visitation, Church cleaning, Gardening, Building work, Administrative Support, Catechists, Servers, Readers, Counters, Bookkeepers, etc. Such lay activity can supply a sense of ownership of The Faith, and provide folk with the impetus to share their Faith in their venues of work, rest and play.

[ii] The call to be missionary parishes is also sound; I am very supportive of using our buildings for outreach work. 15 years ago in a previous parish I established a mother-and-toddler group to provide support to young mums, and a support group for parents of drug-addicted youth (I have no idea if these continued on after I left the parish), so I know how our buildings can impact the local community in a positive way.

[iii] The provision of a more varied liturgical experience is also sound. At present any sort of gathering (Legion of Mary or SVP celebrations, Scouts, Guides or other annual celebrations) all have Holy Mass with their celebration. It has become ‘Mass with chips’. If we want Holy Mass to be experienced as the source, centre and summit of our worship we need other (‘satellite’) liturgies: the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), Taizé evenings and prayer meetings are all possible without too much difficulty, and providing these will enable us to focus on celebrating Holy Mass as the solemn, sacred celebration it should be rather than as the jolly, entertaining get-together it has become. (Strange though: we are seeking non-Mass liturgies when we have all but abandoned such inspiring things as Marian Processions, Corpus Christi Processions; Tenebrae, Benediction etc  -why not re-establish these glorious devotions of the past?)

[iv] Energising the youth is essential. This however, requires that we give them Truth to feed on rather than theological opinion or emotional meanderings. Improvised liturgies with readings, hymns, dance, drama and mime can present the faith in an entertaining way -and allow us to keep the celebration of Mass solemn and sacred so as to give an experience of the numinous (an experience of God which is at once both awe-inspiring and captivating). 

The danger in all of this that I and others note, is that we might progress to a lay-led ‘model*’ of Church; one of ‘sheep without shepherds’, the very scenario Our Lord lamented over. Lay-led models are not authentic expressions of the Church (cf. Redemptionis Sacramentum, #146, CDF/CDWDS, 2004): they are not simply flocks without shepherds, but bodies without a head. We must avoid giving the impression that such parishes are good and authentic. “The lay faithful...must acknowledge that the ministerial priesthood is totally necessary for their participation in the mission in the Church”. (Christifideles laici #22). While we ought to “ought to acknowledge and foster the ministries, the offices and roles of the lay faithful that find their foundation in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, indeed, for a good many of them, in the Sacrament of Matrimony” yet we must remember that “the exercise of such tasks does not make Pastors of the lay faithful: in fact, a person is not a minister simply in performing a task, but through sacramental ordination.” (ibid, #23). We might also remember "Parishes are communities of the baptised who express and affirm their identity above all through the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. But this requires the presence of a presbyter, who alone is qualified to offer the Eucharist in persona Christi. When a community lacks a priest, attempts are rightly made somehow to remedy the situation so that it can continue its Sunday celebrations, and those religious and laity who lead their brothers and sisters in prayer exercise in a praiseworthy way the common priesthood of all the faithful based on the grace of Baptism. But such solutions must be considered merely temporary, while the community awaits a priest...The sacramental incompleteness of these celebrations should above all inspire the whole community to pray with greater fervour that the Lord will send labourers into his harvest (cf. Mt 9:38). It should also be an incentive to mobilize all the resources needed for an adequate pastoral promotion of vocations... (Encyclical letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, #32, John-Paul II)

To counter the danger of progressing to a lay-led model, many of us believe actual vocation drives must be central to the life of the Diocese, and the role of the priest acknowledged as essential to each community. Let’s be honest: the reason we have to consider changing the ‘model* of Church’ scripture gives us is because we have too few priests to serve our parishes. However, any proposal to “Let the people run the parishes themselves” would simply be a re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: a re-arranging of the current situation, not a plan to get out of it. It would do nothing to keep the ship afloat. I’m sure it’s expected that an active laity will produce vocations. It won’t. It hasn’t done so for the last 40 years of increasing ‘lay ministry’. Indeed, it’s during those 40 years of vigorously promoting lay roles that vocations fell precipitously.

I also think we cannot avoid asking ‘What is being done to help the laity undertake their proper role as the leaven in the world; in those places where they work, rest and play?’ We have Vatican II declaring the apostolate of the laity as that of being leaven in the world, but we do not appear to be promoting this or forming the folk for this.

A second danger is that we override the lay person’s Divine vocation to be the leaven in the world. Here we need to consider the problem of language. We need to be careful about our use of the words ‘vocation’; ‘call’ and ‘ministry’: to emphasise equality of clergy and laity (which obviously exists on the level of personhood) we have equated active lay roles with vocations: we now have people saying they ‘have a vocation’ (or a call) to be a Reader or Catechist. This makes the mistake of equating the Ecclesiastical Call to service with the Divine Calling to the ministry of Holy Orders. The laity (most usually) have the vocation to Marriage as part of levvening the world, so speaking of an ecclesial service role as a call can not only override the call to be the leaven in the world but can even diminish the dignity of the vocation of Marriage, which comes to be seen as ‘just another lay call’. It is anything but.

Misused language and promotion of lay roles can also hinder vocations to the priesthood in that a man called to Holy Orders may hear it as a call to lay activity; he might think that by becoming a Reader and an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion that he has answered his call. If the call persists, he may only add lay activities to his résumé: Funeral Minister; Wedding Minister; Baptism Minister -and miss the call to priesthood altogether. He may then marry and settle for ordination as a Deacon rather than priesthood.

Deacons running parishes is not the answer either. While they can baptise, conduct funeral services and wedding services as an Ordinary Minister (not Requiem or Nuptial Masses), all of these can be done by a lay person if absolutely necessary. That said, a Deacon can preach which a lay person cannot, and is an Ordinary Minister of Holy Communion (they weren't always, practically speaking. When Holy Communion was under one kind only it was invariably the priest alone who administered Holy Communion). Historically, they are Ordinary Ministers, especially of the chalice. As men in Holy Orders they are to be preferred to laity running parishes, but since they are not ordained to the office of shepherd, which requires a participation in the ministry of binding and losing ‘in persona Christi Capitis’, it is less than the ideal and does not reflect the Church as Christ established her.

Another danger is that if we have visiting priests (with laity distributing Holy Communion at Services of the Word due to the absence of the priest), we are in danger of practically (rather than ontologically) turning an Extra-ordinary Ministry into an ordinary one, for the distribution of Holy Communion is proper only to the priest who, in the person of Christ is to ‘take, bless, break and give’. On the two occasions in the Gospel when Christ does not Himself distribute (the feeding of the 5000 ad the 4000) it is precisely the Apostles who distribute and who collect the fragments (purify?) The integrity of the four-fold action of the priest acting in the person of Christ is lost if Holy Communion is routinely distributed by laity acting alone, rather than as acting an assistant to the priest at Mass on atypical occasions.

A further problem arises in speaking of the giftedness of the laity, which is frequently done without a wider context. As Andrew said to me yesterday, “We never hear about the giftedness of the priests, so we wouldn’t know what gifts in us could indicate a call to priesthood. In fact, Priests appear a bland lot next to us ‘gifted laity’.”

To sum up: the problem being the lack of priests, the answer is to promote vocations. We have to avoid arriving at the stage where we have sheep without shepherds; bodies without heads. We have to avoid removing of the laity from their God-given, baptismal call so as to install them as simulated shepherds.

So yes: there is much in F.T.I.H. to support: lay participation is necessary and good; the idea of varying liturgies is sound and good; a focus on invigorating the youth is sound and good; building parishes that are missionary to the local community is sound and good. I am fully behind the F.T.I.H. in these aims. But the dangers are real and we shouldn’t dismiss them. If we come to a point where we are speaking of lay-led parishes we are speaking of a non-scriptural ‘model of Church’ which fails to tackle the core problem: the dearth of vocations. A vocation drive is missing, as is promotion of the proper lay role in the world. Other than that we can have high hopes for the project.

Finally, given that attendances and vocations have plummeted since the 1960’s, we might live again as a Church if we were to clearly teach that contraception remains a grave sin, and if we encourage people to see children as a gift from God to be embraced, rather than a burden to be avoided.

*I hesitate to speak of ‘models of the Church’ because what we have received from the Lord is a Divine Constitution, not a mere model which we can alter at will. What has developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit over the last 2000 years is not to be disposed in order that we reflect the socio-political trends of the day. 


  1. Father, I have heard the talk by those leading this project, and am amazed that you say it is not looking for lay leadership. page 9 of the booklet we received in our parish says they are looking for lay leaders, and for new models of leadership, as though the constitution Christ gave the Church of shepherds and their flock is not good enough. i wonder if you have misheard or been misled.

    1. Thank you, Wondering.
      The project is still in its infancy, even its gestational stage, so the passage/s you refer to may be nothing more than possibilities rather than desired outcomes. If there is a hidden agenda of simply getting us to lay-led communities and ‘be open’ means ‘be submissive’ no good can come of the project; occult (hidden) agendas are not of the light, which is Christ.
      God Bless.


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